Semi-structured interviews with residents

More than 50 hours of interviews were recorded with residents of North Central who were representative of the broad demographics of the 2007 census data - a range of people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and socio-economic status. Joely, the community researcher, undertook the interviews in relaxed settings often in residents' homes, over a cup of tea. She typically started with a series of informal questions asking the participants to describe themselves and their community. Many respondents initially regurgitated negative media content about the neighbourhood. Almost 70 per cent of the first responses were general and unflattering, but seemingly apologetic, as reported from external sources, accompanied with short personal commentary or interpretation. For example, some initial comments included: 'it's bad, pretty bad ... but not as bad as they say' and 'they say it's the worst neighbourhood in Canada, but I think it's actually it's getting better'. While not my original intention, these responses inferred the research was about crime, perhaps in response to a magazine article written in 2007, entitled 'Canada's Worst Neighbourhood'.

When asked, 'How do you know if your neighbourhood is getting better?' a repeated response was 'less sirens!' This was regularly followed by laughter shared by the community researcher and research participant. This heartfelt amusement signified misrepresentation of the neighbourhood - tied up in an image of crime, drugs and violence - and that this fact was well-known by residents. Again, the assumption was that the research was interested in the negative stigma of this community. It was a good icebreaker. After the initial laughter, there was usually a response to follow that went something like, 'No, actually, I would know it's getting better if . .. more people knew their neighbours by names', or 'more children had access to arts and sports programmes', or 'more people felt comfortable to walk around at night'. These were clear measures we would link to tangible cultural indicators.

Most research participants shared similar values; this was a surprising outcome. They just measured them differently. For example, the majority of research participants agreed that feeling safe was a priority, but an older lady thought it was safer when there were more police cars around. A younger woman said she knew 'it was less safe with more cop cars around, that means there is more gangs here or hard core drugs happening'. Clearly, these two women had very different experiences and knowledge of the street and of the police service. All indicators, whether quantitatively measuring police cars, people walking in certain neighbourhoods at night, or reported crimes, are, in fact, subjective value judgements. The policy frameworks, the indicators chosen, the causal assumptions set up between indicator and measurements, all put forth a particular set of values. By asking residents, this cultural indicator project intended to deliberately shift the benchmarking power to the grassroots, encouraging a bottom-up approach.

There appeared to be consensus on the top priority of two cultural indicators: neighbourliness ('Do we know our neighbour's names?') and community image ('How does the rest of the world see us?'). For neighbourliness, an annual sampling to measure social capital could be taken by means of a survey asking households whether they knew one or both neighbours on either side of their property. As background to this indicator, many respondents explained that they moved into the neighbourhood because it was affordable, but ended up staying because of the community culture; that is, because they 'liked their neighbours'. It was suggested that a school class could undertake a media and communications project to measure the community image indicator. Articles and images representing the North Central community would be collected from newspapers, television, internet and radio over the course of one year, tracking the positive versus negative representation. Some indicators such as this can, in fact, be catalytic, actually instigating change. For example, the school class who collected media stories could start to generate positive media stories themselves.

These are just two of the more than 50 examples generated by the interviews, focus groups, and workshops as part of the cultural indicator project. The indicators and measures were refined into a cultural development framework based on all of the consultations including community agencies, schools, local government, politicians, business, and that prioritised the voice of residents. Residents of North Central can track the progress and cultural change of their own community, based on their own defined values and benchmarks of success.

Significant content was drawn from these interviews beyond the actual cultural indicators. The indicator project was used as a tool for dialogue, to engage residents in discussion about the culture of their community. Research participants presented tangible and simple solutions for their own concerns: recycling programmes to stagnate garbage fires, lighting systems in the alleys, competitions to rename street names (for instance, named after indigenous heroes) to reflect local culture and build community pride and ownership. Most of these simple solutions were related to developing pride and ownership in place and building local social capital.

As with my creative engagement with the Peacekeepers, the larger cultural indicator project was another type of community research intervention using participatory-advocacy methods for engagement (Liamputtong 2007). It, too, shed light on how people felt about their neighbourhood and aimed to activate individuals to 'switch on' by becoming active subjects. Cultural indicators can be locally relevant and even empowering for citizens when developed through community consultation. This concept of cultural democracy is key to sustaining a community's own trajectory. Ultimately, the creative collaboration tools of cultural development can intervene by creating a third space where identities can be renegotiated when community is tasked to explore a shared sense of progress. This is where individuals can regain control of their representation and where community members and other stakeholders can exchange dialogue.

 
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